For over 24 hours a village in Romania has been occupied by governmental troops, which have replaced local authorities and unofficially instituted an emergency state, in order to help Chevron company start its shale gas exploration operations.
250 gendarmes in armored cars and fighting equipment disembarked at 4 in the morning, forced some villagers in Black Marias, blocked access roads and patrolled the hills around-the-clock. Anyone who dared going out in the alley was being followed and asked for identifications. They wouldn’t let anyone cross the “border”, all the same locals, journalists or kids going to school.
We managed to go in, along with a France Presse photographer, after we had crawled for two hours through rush-bed. Inside, in this poky Vaslui village, we got a rare glimpse of the power games between the government, the people and the corporation. The outcome of this game right here is going to influence the whole country.
Welcome to Pungești!
“Papers, please! No point in asking where you’re going, right?” ?” At about 5 km from the village, as you turn from the national road and go towards Vaslui’s guts, there’s a police filter. They let us through, as if they pity us, knowing what’s next.
The entrance to Pungesti is like the Transnistrian customs. Red lights from the stopped cars’ headlights, blinding lights from the patrol wagons’ headlights parked in the middle of the street. One can only see outlines: metallic fences, army boots, tens of camouflaged gendarmes.
“Access is being restricted for your own safety.” Our safety? Some try to go round the barricade, gendarmes flounce, get back!, not a chance. What are we going to do, turn around?
We leave the car on the side of the road, we make a few steps back and out of the headlight range, and we go down into the gutter. C’mon, we used to play Commandos, how hard can it be? Stealthily through the ploughing, ffffuck me… we go into the open field and realize we’re being surrounded by fireflies. There are patrols everywhere, on the top and bottom of the hills with flashlights, armored cars with far beams. Whenever a searchlight is cast on us, we jump in the rush-bed. We go roundabout, so that our shadows are less visible.
Look! The Chevron perimeter! It’s surrounded by fences and gendarme-equipped-like private agents patrol around it. It looks like a football field, with its spotlights on the spectators. The spectators are us, we’ve got saved seats in the bush stand. Across Chevron you can see some tents, some banners… it’s really the resistance camp, so we may have a chance to actually make it there!
We lie down with our bellies on the frozen ground near a rush-bed, under a sky riddled with stars. There’s a blizzard so strong you can’t hear yourself speaking. Next to us there’s a stinking loo, made out of boards and cellophane, wind blowing loud enough through it to conceal our panting and heart beats. Across the street, the camp is standing.
We were thinking of just making a run for it when an armored car with headlights on came and parked right next to us, fuck, there comes the gendarme with a flashlight; we bury our heads in the sand, he doesn’t see us, goes back inside the car, then his face is all lightened by his mobile phone… is he on Facebook?
We’re holed up here for half an hour now, we can’t wait much longer, we’re going to freeze to death hither. Someone has to take one for the team, let’s draw straws, one of us should give himself in to the gendarmes so the others can run while he has their attention. No, let’s go from behind, with the flashlight, as if they’ve let us in. C’mon, I can’t stand the cold anymore… You know what? Let’s just stand up and walk normally.
We stand up and simply walk, the gendarmes don’t see us, we go round a metal fence, and we get right in the middle of the resistance: an old tractor trailer, a military tent, a small shack and a bigger one, which spits out black smoke through its tin chimney. We go inside.
The shack is basically a hodgepodge of boards, cellophanes and polystyrene, strapped up together with strings, wires and nails. Ten wind-proof square meters, shelter for a stove to roast slices of potatoes on, a table with plastic chairs, a car battery, bags with food, icons….
And five men lost under a pile of blankets on some mattresses crammed out in the back. That’s all there’s left after the gendarmes intervention. Some of them are snoring.
“I don’t sleep, I’m strong“, says a scrawny villager. “That’s why it’s called Pungesti Resistance!” Squeak-squeak, you can hear a mouse in a bag filled with food, whack!, the guy slaps it down, you goddamn mousey, I’ll show you, he slaps it some more, but the little mouse won’t settle down, so the man takes the bag and puts it outside, hehe, your sorry ass will freeze to death.
A lanky monk from Petru Voda Monastery is pissed off because his laptop is dead and he can’t post pictures on the monastery’s blog anymore. He’s making plans for the morning to come, who knows what will happen if they barge in on us, what are we gonna do then?
I sit on a chair and fall asleep with my chin propped on my chest, as if I’m in a church, I’m dead-beat… I collect a blanket from the floor, I pull it over myself, and slowly doze off …
The scrawny villager is boiling some water, he’s searching for the coffee. It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, frosty December 3rd.
-24h. December 2nd, 4 a.m.
Tens of buses, armored vans and Black Marias cut through the darkness on the county road which leads to Pungesti. A police crew sets where the road begins, and stops cars for checking.
Part of the convoy stops at Silistea. They put up a barricade made of fences and gendarmes. They won’t let anyone from or to Pungesti. The bulk of troops debus a few hundred meters farther, where both the Chevron perimeter and the resistance camp are. The rest of the gendarmes scatter around the village. It is still dark.
Inside the camp there are close to one hundred villagers and activists. They’ve found out from the gendarmes that today they start building up the construction site. Many of them arrived since last night. People are sitting on the side of the road and booing the deployment – you traitors!. They’re filming and are being filmed by the gendarmerie.
They came in when it was pitch-dark. They told us we’re blocking the road. We were on a private propriety. They reacted mob style, you know that saying? Put that in the recording. They burst in upon on this private land, says Mihaela Papafil, a stumpy woman from Barlad, 31 years old, her short hair hidden under her padded coat’s collar.
Her hands thrust deep into her pockets, she’s sitting on a plastic chair and is stretching her legs on another one, like she’s waiting for a long time in a train station. They chased us around the hills these fellows, we wore them down a little bit too, hehe. If I was a boy I’d tackle one of them men too. But I’m a woman, pfff.
In front of her, a guy is seeing to something on the cooking stove. He puts another chunk of wood in the fire and goes on telling: They said we were the ones blocking, and this and that. Actually, they wanted us to leave. When they did the intervention here they hit a couple of people with their police batons, no questions asked. Their foreheads were all bruised. … The man is from a nearby village, but since mid-October – when this whole mess started, he’s been spending more time around the camp than at home.
Do you know how they were coming in the morning? 5-6-7 gendarmes against one man, they surrounds you, they hits you in the ribs, they trips you. That’s what they did to me,, the woman interferes. Yes, yes! All they puts in the police vans and took to Vaslui, from here they took them, from this land, the stoker adds.
In the hustle some got hurt trying to escape, others, a bit older fell and got rumpled. Costica Spiridon, the village’s former mayor, recalls in a soft voice on the edge of the ditch: They came in in the morning with their maces. They They knocked me down and dragged me. I cracked a rib, I went to Vaslui to the hospital.
Uncle Costica went to the hospital again, after becoming famous on the internet in October for being the first Romanian to die on account of the shale gas affair. Now he is revived and is ready to die as often as it takes for his cause.
Others were taken away and criminally fined:
I had a flag around my neck, they threw me in one of those small vans and they strangled me with my flag to pin me down, gestures nervously Zina Domnitean, Greenpeace activist, between a phone call to her friends and her fellow activists. When they took her away, the womankicked her feet and broke a window, so she got another fine for aggravated criminal damage.
Some 20 people complained about being hit and promised they’ll go to the medical examiner to get papers to prove their sayings, and to use them against the gendarmes. Some Around 12 people were taken into custody and to the police station:: some to Vaslui, the rest to neighboring Siliștea.
From the camp to the village there’s almost one kilometer of farm land. Then some small poor-looking houses, coloured in blue and pink start showing up and quickly fade away into the village. Here you can find the postal office, the police station, the city hall, the school, the community centre, and some ham joints where you can shake off the heavy frost, all in a 50 meter-range.
An old man who came by the ham joint to check out on things said that not even in the old times has he seen anything like this: They beleaguered us. CWhoever stepped out of their courtyards was being asked for IDs and filmed. They frightened people to death.
The man claims that that’s enough, he’s going to gather a group of people and join the resistance, but he leaves on his own.
Villagers say that children couldn’t make it to school because of the blockade. They wouldn’t let anything in in the morning, not even the minibuses, if you had somewhere to go to, they made you go round, a few people in the ham joint explain, while sipping their coffees from plastic glasses and getting up to date on politics. The young folks – they’re discussing too, but in a closed conspiracy-style circle.
The heads of the village are nowhere to be found. In the city hall’s secretariat there’s only one man, who knows nothing, the rest of the doors stay locked. The police headquarters is crowded with gendarmes.
Around noon, those who are still in the camp get surrounded by gendarmes, who are making way for Chevron equipment, and then clear the perimeter, but patrol unswervingly. It’s a good time for the villagers to read the newspaper and give us a summary of the trickeries that brought them here:
- Pungești has been against this affair!
- When the local council and the people agreed to make a referendum, the county council hampered our plan; when people started smelling a rat, they began putting pressure, making threats that you’ll all be left without social benefits, whoever is caught giving out booklets will be punished and whatnot..
– But wait a second, lad, there’ll be plenty of jobs…
- What you say? Plenty of jobs my ass!
– The mayor swindled the land, which actually belongs to the village… then he brought some people who lied to the villagers that they’re going to get newspaper subscriptions, whereas what they were really subscribing for was to give Chevron the okay.
Now they are litigating, and hoping they can still change something. Otherwise, it’s the beginning of the end for Vaslui.
- Mister gendarme, aren’t you ashamed of the foul language you used on me yesterday? You goddamn woman, you said.
- Who, me?
Oh, wait, the landowner is here. He doesn’t know precisely where his land begins and where it ends, but what’s sure is that where the people were, the gendarmerie had no business interfering. I was on my land, just looking with my hands folded, nothing else. They came without any explanation whatsoever, scattered around my whole land. They even gave me a fine for being on my own land..
- – Mister gendarme, why did you put me in the van, I was standing on my own land, c’mon now, take your fence and move it away
says the man, getting his courage up when seeing all his fellow villagers alongside.
Meanwhile, the company’s workers are moving fast; they’re preparing the area for the first shale gas exploration drill in Romania. They’re building a catwalk out of clay and gravel so that cars and machineries can pass. A few drays bring excavators in the area, while a squad of workers is closing the perimeter with fences, setting up a shelter-booth, two ecological toilets, reflectors, everything they need basically.
Engineers are taking measurements and marking spots, machineries are digging, leveling, carrying the clay away and depositing it properly. A handful of workers are setting up a bulletin board about the project. It was like Iwo Jima, claims a guy from the camp
The guards from a private intervention unit deploy as a human gate, which slides open like the Mall doors whenever a machinery is coming through.
Sunrise in Pungești
Late night. Only a few protesters are left in the cold and filthy camp. They’re tired, frozen and dehydrated, like Dostoyevsky’s poor fellows. For it to turn out well, even worse things need to happen.
The conversation takes a rural-guerrilla machiabolique turn against the surreal conspiracy between Romanian masons and foreign demons:
- – I’m spiteful I didn’t bring a fork. We all should’ve brought with us iron forks. A fork does not qualify as knuckles. Self-defense. If shit goes down/If something’s up, you pull out the fork, and pierce it through the guy’s throat.
- No, you know what we should’ve done from the beginning? We should’ve brought hayforks and axes and just parade around, not necessarily intervene, but give them the jitters. Then they would either kill the people, or leave.
- The way they’re just standing there, they can easily be beaten up and killed. No-one’s gonna get you. No-one, ever! Say you don’t kill them right now, but in 3 or 4 days time, when we know for sure if this Chevron thing is going to happen or not – then you either chase Chevron away, or there’s nothing left to be done!
The wind died down a little, says someone, changing the topic. Father said «even the weather changed since this viciousness», if we prayed a little more, it’d be a tsunami. I say, he was right this father of ours, he said a few prayers and the wind came upon us.
Someone prepares the stove for coffee.
It’s been one day since the invasion. The night slowly fades away into a dawn that tricks us all to step out in the cold. An unidentified celestial body gets everybody interested. Is it missile, is it a comet. Anyway, something gracious.
After contemplating the limitless roof, a monk crosses the street. In front of the construction site, a small prayer settlement, which was built by his fellow monks from the Petru Voda monastery, reigns over. The monk kneels and starts praying right under the battle-equipped bodyguards’ noses.
Back in Bucharest, we were informed we got it all wrong…
The truth about Pungești:
The Police didn’t form an enclave where free movement, the right to property and freedom of the press were broken. They didn’t even block the road, spokeswoman Irina Dragan repeated to me thrice. On the contrary, the gendarmerie mission was “to ensure traffic fluency on the communication route” and to create a “climate of normalcy in the area”.
Chevron didn’t use civil servants/ state employees as mercenaries against the villagers, moreover “theyare expressing once again their commitment to being in good and constructive terms with the local communities where their activities take place, and to keep the dialogue open about their projects with those interested, the local communities and the authorities.”
The Government didn’t order a disproportionate and abusive intervention to support a company. According to, reiterat prime-minister Ponta’s “ reiteration, all of the gendarmes undertakings are one hundred percent legal and I thus congratulate them. That’s what the gendarmes are for, for such times when the law is being broken.”
Everything is OK.
Reporter: Ștefan Mako
Fotograf: George Popescu
Chițcan: Vlad Ursulean